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Grade inflation is a result—rather than the cause—of poor assessment practices in higher education.

In a recent study from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College suggests that some instructors who believe they are using “badly designed or poorly executed assessments” are more likely to engage—either consciously or subconsciously—in lenient grading as a corrective measure.

To determine grade reliability across all academic disciplines, the longitudinal study examined final course data from 54,460 courses taught at an anonymous North American University. Grading in each course was evaluated using two grading scores: leniency and reliability.

Grading reliability is a measure of whether students earn course grades matching their total GPA. For example, if the average GPA of students enrolled in a course is an A-minus and the final course average is a C-plus, the grading is unreliable. Grading leniency is similar, measuring the difference between an average grade given in a course and the total GPA of those students at the end of the term.

Results show that instructors are more likely to engage in lenient grading in courses with poor grading reliability, even when factoring in potential variables such as course level, credit value, and instructor experience.

In order to mitigate the effects of grading leniency the author proposes a number of solutions including the use of learning management assessments to collect and share data with departments. Providing instructors with the ability to compare their grading with that of their peers may correct leniencies and increase overall grading reliability.

While significantly more research in this area needs to be conducted, this study posits a strong argument that grade inflation is not a result of instructors becoming objectively more lenient. In order to begin solving the root issues post-secondary institutions may consider focusing more time and resources on improving the reliability of their assessments and evaluations.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.